Reinventing Religion: the Neo-Pagan Experience
A short talk for the Oxford Sea
of Faith Conference, 19/11/2011, by Katy Jennison
usually leave off the "neo-", and I see that although my
spell-checker is quite happy with simple Paganism it doesn't like neo-Paganism:
it offers to correct it to hooliganism, republicanism or Anglicanism ...!
First, I need to make clear
that because Pagans are continually re-inventing their own versions of
Paganism, nothing I say should be taken as applying to all Pagans
everywhere. Neo-Paganism is simply a
useful umbrella term which these days covers Wiccans, witches, Druids,
Thelemites, and shamanic practitioners, but also all the others -- probably the
majority of Pagans these days -- who are not aligned to a specific recognised
path, and/or who take parts from more than one path and create their own
And secondly, one very
important thing to bear in mind is that we're not talking about beliefs
here. It's necessary to stress that, for
most neo-Pagans, practice is very much more important than belief. The American writer Fritz Muntean
characterises the initiatory forms of Wicca, one of the neo-Paganisms, as orthopraxy,
not as orthodoxy. And since to most
neo-Pagans their religion, or their Pagan way of life, is not about belief but
about practice, the bouquet of different flowers which we're creating from
different fields is not a bouquet of beliefs but of practices. The general approach is summed up in the
words of the American Pagan, Storm:
words th'eclectic Rede attest:
what works; fix what's broke; fake the rest."
The key here is whether a
practice works; and whether it works for me, not necessarily whether it
works for anyone else, let alone for everyone else. Pagans quite specifically reject the idea
that there's any one size which fits all.
And that's a generalisation, which I said I wouldn't make: but I've
never met a Pagan of whom that particular generalisation wasn't true.
To go back to the beginning
of this particular re-invention, about fifty years ago: Margaret Murray
(1863-1963) originally published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe in
1921, claiming that the people persecuted in the long-running series of
witch-trials in Europe had been practitioners of a surviving neolithic cult
which worshipped a Horned God, and that pockets of this cult still survived
today. This was almost immediately
attacked by scholars in the field, but their rebuttal was then largely ignored;
so her thesis was accepted by a large number of people, including historians of
other periods and scholars in other fields, simply because her book and its
theories was disseminated far more widely than the rebuttal. Serious challenge only came to public
attention after Margaret Murray's death in 1963.
Her thesis had, however,
caught the public imagination at a time when many people were becoming
disillusioned with the established church.
Initially, the idea of an ancient, indigenous, pre-Christian religion,
which had survived despite centuries of persecution, appealed very much to
people brought up on the Romantics, people who took part in the resurgence of
interest in manifestations of English traditional culture, such as the folk
dance and song revival between the wars.
This was a limited, middle-class, wistful para-Paganism, looking back to
what by then seemed the golden years before 1914, and seeking to re-create an
imagined Golden Age of innocence in an increasingly industrialised post-war
Disillusion with all
manifestations of the establishment had a resurgence after the end of the
second world war; and then in the 1950s the impulse towards a different form of
religion met the inventive, structured ritual practices which Gerald Gardner
introduced, first in fictional form and then in 1954, after the repeal of the
Witchcraft Act in 1950, in his book Witchcraft Today.
A particular appeal of
Gardner's new variety of witchcraft, or Wicca, was that it contained a Goddess
and well as a God, and a High Priestess who was not only the equal of the High
Priest but in some respects his superior.
This aspect especially caught the imaginations of those of us who were
part of the Women's Movement in the 1970s, and it played a key part in the anti-nuclear
demonstrations at Greenham Common in the 1980s.
Another aspect which sharply
differentiated Wicca from Christianity, and which struck a note with people fed
up with being patronised and preached to, was (and is) its ethical code, which
is simply "An it harm none, do what you will". This is of course very similar to St
Augustine of Hippo's "Love God and do as thou wilt". The key point is what it doesn't tell you: it
doesn't set out a list of what you must and must not do: in any situation, you
are obliged to work out what the appropriate thing is. The responsibility for making the decision,
and for its consequences, rests firmly with you.
A third crucial aspect, which
follows from this, is that the neo-Paganisms embrace light and dark equally,
and don't relegate whatever one's particular culture defines as "bad"
to a darkness which is set up in an artificial duality with "good"
and "light". Life is always
much more fuzzy than that; the idea, from Jungian psychology, of embracing
one's Shadow and learning from it as a form of personal transformation has been
incorporated into the practice of many Pagans.
Gerald Gardner presented, and
may indeed have believed in, a long unbroken tradition behind his version of
Witchcraft, but the rituals he presented actually owed more to the Western magickal
orders, of which the best-known is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which
had been flourishing in a quiet and secret way during the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries; and the current form of most of these rituals, which
still make up the backbone of much Wiccan practice today, was written by Doreen
Valiente (1922-1999) in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She wrote them in a deliberately archaic,
poetic style, which was cheerfully embraced by people who thought religions
ought to be old and were convinced that this was one of the oldest; but no
small reason why her words are still used today is that they are genuinely
poetic and powerful in their own right.
At the end of this rapid survey I'll give you one of her invocations.
The discrediting of Margaret
Murray's witch-cult survival thesis took a while to percolate through the
growing Wiccan community, and there are still pockets, especially in the US,
which refuse to believe that their practice hasn't been passed down unchanged
since neolithic times, in rather the same way that some Christian
fundamentalists seem to believe that the Bible was dictated by God in
seventeenth-century English. In the UK,
though, things took a rather different course.
Instead of thinking "Oh, well, if it's all invented I'll give it
up", a number of Wiccans and other Pagans had the opposite reaction, which
was "How splendid! -- if Gerald Gardner made it all up then so can
we!" Today, in keeping with this
approach, there are probably far more eclectic Pagans than there are members of
defined groups. We may still argue
delightfully about the proper or authentic or original way to draw an invoking
pentagram of fire, but that's because many Pagans, the ones I know in Oxford
anyway, are also interested in the history and in the writings of people from
Apuleius to MacGregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn.
And of course Gardner didn't
quite "make it all up", because no-one ever does: what he and Doreen
Valiente did was confect a coherent new religion by mixing together some of the
most appealing ingredients from earlier practices and philosophies, or, as
Storm puts it, "steal what works, fix what's broke, fake the rest."
Currently the mantra of
"choice" is everywhere, but back in the 1960s and 70s the idea that
one could choose, let alone invent, one's religion, rather than being
born into one or alternatively having to identify the "one true" one,
was very liberating and very exciting. I
remember from my own childhood, and I'm probably talking about the 1950s here,
thinking that the Greek gods were very much more appealing than the Christian
one. But it did not occur to me at that
time that the Christianity I was being brought up in was in any sense a matter
of choice: it was assumed to be "true". Today, most Pagans have deliberately chosen
their particular path; and, as I said, the Pagans I know are not interested in belief:
what matters is whether their particular practice works.
Neo-Paganism has thus far
resisted developing institutionalised leadership structures, powerful
spokespeople, or anyone who can at all plausibly claim to speak for all Pagans
or for Paganism, or indeed for all Wiccans or all Druids. There is an umbrella body, the Pagan
Federation, but we do not have a mechanism for arriving at an official line on
controversial issues. There is no
official line: we each have to take responsibility for our individual
conclusions or decisions.
In his book The Fountain
one of Don's key issues is becoming reconciled with transience. Most neo-Paganism is quite good at this: we
have the constant change which is at the heart of the Wheel of the Year as a
focus for ritual and for personal development.
Samhain (Halloween), for instance, is the end and beginning of the year:
we focus on death -- our friends', family's, ancestors' and our own -- and on
the descent into the underworld which precedes the rebirth of the new year and
a new cycle. The ritual cycle of the
year is explicitly also the physical and psychological life-cycle of the
In his Introduction to The
Fountain Don says "My chief problem during this past 40-odd years of
very intensive thinking and writing has been that we humans now seem to be
permanently stuck with a restlessly dissatisfied critical mentality that can
never be content with anything for long.
I have been experimenting furiously, looking for a new religious outlook
in an age in which it is perhaps no longer possible for any of us ever to find
a permanent spiritual home."
What Don sees as a problem,
most Pagans would see as an enormous positive advantage as well as a
liberation. For most of us, the very
essence of our Paganism is this constant search, this perpetual quest, this
never-ending path up, down or around the mountain. We prize critical thinking -- constructive
dissatisfaction -- and are on the whole deeply suspicious of anyone who has
nothing left to criticize or be dissatisfied with, or who, indeed, claims to
inhabit a permanent home. Bruce Kent, in
another context, wrote: "Peace is not the goal: peace is the way of
life." The way of life, the
spiritual home, in my universe, is the constant-but-always-changing
companionship of other people who are on a similar journey, even if their path
only runs alongside mine for a little while.
The spiritual home is never a fixed point, more an occasional circle of
temporary tents around a camp-fire.
Why do it? Because, if you're like me, you've tried a
completely secular life (actually, if you take the word "secular"
back to its roots, neo-Paganism is probably a secular religion, or at least one
focused on immanence rather than transcendence), or if you've tried doing
without a religion and concluded that you missed the mythology, or the story
about meaning, or the means of expressing wonder, or the practice of ritual, or
even just the dressing-up and the singing, but you still don't feel especially
comfortable with other people's solutions, the obvious and natural course is to
put together your own set of stories and practices. Nothing is ever completely new; any
re-invented religion is probably pretty syncretic, which is a nice friendly
word meaning cobbled together out of all sorts of bits and pieces from the
rag-bag of one's memory of other religions, mortared together with one's
imagination; but you'd be hard put to it to find any religion, ancient or
modern, of which that is not also true, even if they disguise this, not least
from themselves, by calling it "reinterpreting" or "returning to
our roots" or "a revival" or "renewal" or even
We are that part of the
Universe which does the conscious experiencing.
We can invent our own story to give a three-dimensional shape to the
part we play in the network of elements which make up the world. My own path perceives the sacred in the
everyday, and it is a system of psychological and spiritual self-development
within which I seek to balance the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional
Finally, here is Doreen
Valiente's The Charge of the Goddess:
Hear ye the words of the Star Goddess;
she in the dust of whose feet are the hosts of
and whose body encircles the universe:
I who am the beauty of the green earth,
and the white moon among the stars,
and the mystery of the waters,
and the desire of the heart of man,
I call unto thy soul: Arise, and come unto me.
For I am the soul of nature,
who gives life to the universe.
From Me all things proceed,
and unto Me all things must return;
and before My face, beloved of gods and of men,
let thine innermost divine self
be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.
Let My worship be within the heart that rejoices;
for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.
And therefore let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion,
honour and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.
And thou who thinkest to seek Me, know
that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not
unless thou knowest the Mystery:
that if that which thou seekest thou findest not
thou wilt never find it without.
For behold, I have been with thee from the
and I am that which is attained at the end of
For a scholarly account of
the history of Wicca in England, see Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,